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Magnolia: The Innovator

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

A Spotlight Article by Cat from Dancefaire Magazine

Energy hums through the tent. The festival show involves a full house. People settle in every seat. They wedge into corners. They tiptoe behind the back row. Standing room only.

The energy comes from the stage. Magnolia, a Georgia-based professional belly dancer, has arrived. She settles in a chair at center-stage. A harp is in front of her. Beside her is Carmine Guida, her musical accompanist. Magnolia's fingers brush the harp strings. Notes push outward, blending in soft harmony. The pair play together in a graceful duet. Then she rises, casting off her cloak. Carmine plays onward, picking up speed. Magnolia dances down the stage, finding an accent for each beat. Her costume shimmers and shines.

As a dancer, she has incredible, innate rhythm. She finds swift, percussive movements in her solos, and matches complex beats with exacting speed. Her choreography is emotional, lively, innovative and inventive. She travels gracefully through her movements, executing soft arm-work and complex level changes with calm confidence. Professionally, she is Magnolia.

This spring, Dancefaire Magazine sat down with the dancer for an extended talk about her art form.

In the US dance world, belly dance remains a hidden jewel. Dance schools populate big cities and small towns, each offering a consistent list of dance forms: jazz, tap, contemporary, hip-hop, ballet. Some add yoga to their repertoire. Others include ballroom dancing. Rare is the school that offers belly dance.

When asked if her childhood included a lot of dancing, Magnolia laughs lightly. “It included,” she says, “a lot of being barefoot, running around, and climbing trees.” She pauses, summoning memories of her earlier life. “I always loved dancing," she says. "As a kid, I danced around the living room." She recalls taking classes in African dance, and modern dance. "I imagined the idea of myself being a dancer,” she admits, “but I never thought it would happen."

In her teens, she discovered belly dance. That connection was immediate. "Belly dance stole my heart," she declares. She started finding her own resources for the art form, and doing belly dance "all the time." Some of her greatest professional dance inspirations included belly dancers Sahar Samara, Johara, Ruby Beh, and non-belly dancer Aliya Janell.

It was Ruby Beh, a Portland-based professional, who became Magnolia's personal dance mentor. “I sought her out,” she confirms. “I found her performances on Youtube. She was amazing. She ran a mentorship program."

Beh conducted her own dance training programs for professional dancers. It was a commitment that Magnolia describes as intense. It involved a formal interview with Beh, and a careful selection process.

“She expects a lot from her students," Magnolia admitted. The results, however, were transformative. Magnolia began entering--and winning--professional competitions.

Soon after came a full-fledged dance career. Professional bookings, festivals, performance gigs, variety shows. The life of a professional dancer takes equal parts energy and creativity. Event-bookings and restaurant gigs require late nights and long hours. Magnolia has her own routine. "I love rehearsing after 11 PM," she admits with a light laugh. “I'm a night owl.” "Still," she adds, a meditative note entering her voice, "I'm aware of what my body needs. Sometimes your body needs to rest. Sometimes you have other priorities that come up. Dancers put pressure on themselves to be perfect, but you need to find a balance that works for your life over a period of time."

What has been the best advice she's received as a dancer? Magnolia pauses. "Well,” she says, “that's changed for me over the years. It's really changed as I've entered different stages of my career. Right now, I feel like the key to long-term success is to keep educating yourself. I like online research, Youtube, connecting with other artists. That includes connecting with non-dancers. The artistic process for everyone is very different, and I learn a lot from speaking with other artists."

When asked about her collection of beautiful, specially-made costumes, she confirms her passion for that piece of performance art. “I'm inspired by color, fabric, images, music, a combination of things. All of those things. It's never been consistently one thing. I'm so involved in the process. I choose to work with my designers. When we connect, we're doing an artistic collaboration. And also, they're inspired by different things as well, so it's a unique creation. I love trying things people haven't seen before." Her voice remains philosophical as the topic turns to potential difficulties for new dancers.

"The worst advice I've ever heard..." she continues, "was to not post any dance videos unless they're perfect.” Her voice grows firm as she adds, “Here's why that's bad advice: firstly, there is no perfect. You always have something to improve. Posting videos or watching your own videos is a great way to figure that out. Second, I wouldn't have received the opportunities I have today if I'd never posted online. It's so important to show your audience that dance is vulnerable, that it's work, and that there are mistakes."

She describes the vulnerable moments in dance as some of her favorite moments. "Recently, I had a second generation belly dancer tell me that she cried during a recent performance of mine. That's the point of dance to me--reaching the audience with authentic emotion. When I've done that, then I know I've done my job as a dancer. I also feel inspired when I watch dancers who are fearless. They don't live inside of a box. They're always trying new things. They connect with people. I love dancing really close to the audience. Sometimes I think I perform my best when it's an intimate setting."

“The most awesome thing,” she adds, “is authentic emotional expression. That's what's really important to me as a dancer, and it makes the dance meaningful to your audience and yourself. Most people in the United States---who are outside the belly dance world---don't understand that this dance form is very difficult. It's one of the oldest dance forms in existence. It has a complex history, complex musicality, cultural nuances...”

"Dance can be very solitary,” Magnolia concludes. “You have to become very aware of your own body. You have to acknowledge a lot of intense emotions to dance truthfully. It's a very vulnerable and personal thing to do. Even if you have a teacher, an audience, the part that you're expressing is still your own. That part of the dance journey is inward.” A Note from Oriana: Magnolia suffered major injuries from an accident this past winter. She is expected to fully recover; but please join Fanoos Magazine in wishing her well and supporting this wonderful artist. Cat holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature and is the owner of Dancefaire Magazine. She believes in promoting all dance forms and has recently discovered a love of Bellydance herself. "It's beautiful, ,it's under-represented, it's interesting, it's innovative. it's my favorite type of dance to learn."

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